I had the singular pleasure of reading some poetry with a friend this week. I brought out my old favorite, George Herbert, and my friend brought another, Gerard Manley Hopkins. It got me thinking about a list of favorite poets. Here’s my list at the moment, and this is of short form poets. (No Dante, no Homer. Long-form poetry is another list.) Who are your favorite poets?
1. George Herbert. I keep coming back to his rich language and devotional center. He’s not read as much as his fellow metaphysical poet Donne, but I like him more. One example of his powerful imagery, the last stanza of “Artillery”:
Then we are shooters both, and thou dost deign
To enter combat with us, and contest
With thine own clay. But I would parley fain:
Shun not my arrows, and behold my breast.
Yet if thou shunnest, I am thine:
I must be so, if I am mine.
There is no articling with thee:
I am but finite, yet thine infinitely.
2. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Love his subject matter, certainly, and his inventive use of language and rhythm. My favorite of his remains “God’s Grandeur”:
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
3. Dana Gioia. Gioia is not only a fine poet but a fine thinker and critic. From his “The Apple Orchard.”
We had the luck, if you can call it that,
Of having been in love but never lovers—
The bright flame burning, fed by pure desire.
Nothing consumed, such secrets brought to light!
There was a moment when I stood behind you,
Reached out to spin you toward me . . . but I stopped.
What more could I have wanted from that day?
Everything, of course. Perhaps that was the point—
To learn that what we will not grasp is lost.
4. Robert Frost. Sure, he’s a popular poet. But I keep coming back to poems like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”:
He gives his harness bells a shake
to ask if there is some mistake
the only other sound’s the sweep
of easy wind and downy flake.
5. Scott Cairns. I discovered Cairns via his account of visiting Mount Athos, Short Trip to the Edge. I’ve since come to enjoy his poems a great deal, like “Recitation”:
…The miracle arrived
without display. He held a book, and as he read
he found the very thing he’d sought. Just that.
A life with little hurt but one, the lucky gift
of a raveled book, a kettle slow to heat,
and time enough therefore to lift the book
and find in one slight passage the very wish
he dared not ask aloud, until, that is,
he spoke the words he read.
One to grow on…
“I’m Going to Start Living Like a Mystic”
Today I am pulling on a green wool sweater
and walking across the park in a dusky snowfall.
The trees stand like twenty-seven prophets in a field,
each a station in a pilgrimage—silent, pondering.
Blue flakes of light falling across their bodies
are the ciphers of a secret, an occultation.
I will examine their leaves as pages in a text
and consider the bookish pigeons, students of winter.
I will kneel on the track of a vanquished squirrel
and stare into a blank pond for the figure of Sophia.
I shall begin scouring the sky for signs
as if my whole future were constellated upon it.
I will walk home alone with the deep alone,
a disciple of shadows, in praise of the mysteries.